Nagraj Manjule’s Third Act 

Jhund, starring Amitabh Bachchan, scales up the Sairat director’s filmmaking grammar. He talks about the film and directing his hero.
Nagraj Manjule’s Third Act 

There is something self-reflexive about someone who once didn't have the money to watch an Amitabh Bachchan film making his entry into Hindi mainstream cinema with a film featuring who else but Bachchan – the biggest of our stars – as what else but Vijay – the granddaddy of all iconic screen names. But here's the twist: Nagraj Manjule didn't exactly come up with the idea to make a film with his 'hero' after he's tasted success, like a fanboy filmmaker would. It was one of Manjule's producers who asked him if he'd like to take up the project and pitch it to the actor. It just so happens that Bachchan's character in Jhund is based on Vijay Barse, a real life reformist teacher who has transformed lives of slum kids with football – a coincidence that feels like destiny. 

Manjule's journey has been its own movie: when the wild bunch (underprivileged, but not without swagger) at the centre of Jhund make their way to the playground in the neighbouring elite school by scaling the wall that segregates them – or, as in the climax, set their foot in Mumbai international airport to get on that plane – it seems to mirror the filmmaker's trajectory: from poverty and caste struggle to fame and success. In small town Maharashtra, it would seem, Manjule is no less a hero. A giant cutout of the filmmaker as big as that of Bachchan stood outside a theatre in Solapur. Manjule also happens to be the host of Kaun Honar Crorepati (the Marathi version of Kaun Banega Crorepati), and was reportedly signed for a whopping two crores. 

Manjule told me that he was "careful" that the fan in him didn't overtake the filmmaker. He was, of course, aware of the subtext that comes with casting Bachchan in a role like this, with all that screen history behind him, but he was clear that he wanted the actor to be true to the real life figure the character is based on.

The "entry" scene is visually telling, and strategic. We are slowly drawn into the environment of the characters that will make up the "jhund", and we are at its most immersive – a fight that you don't want to happen, followed by a chase scene through narrow lanes – when the camera and the characters stumble upon Bachchan at the end of it, or Vijay Barse – as Manjule would like you to see it – who appears in their lives like an angel in tracksuits, a constructive, calming force for the kids. "The entry is special for me, even though it is very unlike Bachchan," he said. "If you got a sense of a buildup that 'He is coming, he is coming' it would've seemed like he's god, a saviour who is coming to end their miseries. I wanted to show that someone like Vijay Barse could have come into their lives only by accident."  

Manjule learnt filmmaking on the fly. He had picked up the basics while he was studying mass communications and by watching films. When he was making his first feature film Fandry (2013) he was still figuring out the finer aspects of sound and things like focus and lighting. He recalls a scene from the film where we see the protagonist, Jabya, carry a pig, and in the backdrop murals of social reformers like BR Ambedkar and Savitribai Phule. While shooting it Manjule realised that something is missing – he added the background later. Even with all the preparation in place, Manjule said, he likes to move around the set to find the best position from where to "see" the characters, from where "it makes the most sense". "You use technique for a creative expression, and not the other way around," he said. 

In Jhund, we see a picture of Ambedkar that outsizes Bachchan, a detail that reveals how Manjule has scaled-up his filmmaking grammar. Like Tamil filmmakers such as Pa Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj, Manjule weaponises the presence of a big star to amplify his politics. But unlike, say, Kaala or Karnan, Manjule wants to show that violence is not the way out. Bending the rules of a sports movie – Manjule insists that it'll be wrong to look at Jhund as a sports movie – the film's second half, in its own radical way, arrives at a dramatically tense final act that rests entirely upon a crucial choice to be made by Don, the protagonist, that, whether he chooses to go back to a life of crime or find purpose in football. Even earlier in the movie, Don's overtures towards the upper class, Savarna girl he is in love with borders on eve-teasing at first, but his heroic performance in the second half (of the match) magically calms down his demeanour (towards her). The implication is that physical sports can be a life-changing outlet for pent-up energies. 

Jhund signals a departure for Manjule also in that it's his most hopeful film. The memories of the brutal ending in Sairat (2016) can hardly be exorcised – nor can the unforgettable last shot of Fandry, in which Jabya throws a stone at the camera, literally breaking the fourth wall. A very different scene in Jhund made me think of the scene because of the eye contact it makes with the audience: Vijay Barse, in a decisive session at the court, politely asking the judge for permission, gets up from his seat to defend his jhund of juvenile troublemakers and appeals to her to look at their crimes in context and with empathy. He is looking at the judge, but it feels (framed in a medium shot) like a direct communication to the viewer, almost like a Public Service Message, flitting between preachiness and honesty. Manjule told me that Bachchan delivered the six minute scene in one take in the rehearsals itself (even though he had to introduce cuts later). It made him tear up on the set. And never for once did he doubt the integrity of the scene. "Ek seedhi saral baat hai. It was written not as dialoguebaazi, but as a message to people about an issue that is genuine." 

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